Throwback Thursday: Dystopian Dick—Total Recall

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—typically “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important in some aspect.

As mentioned in my previous columns, with CONvergence coming up in July and running with their theme of dystopian visions, I’m delving into the film adaptations of Philip K. Dick. I will stay away from comparisons to his novels and short stories as much as possible and focus specifically on the films themselves.

How can you talk about one version of Total Recall without discussing the other? When you decide to remake a popular film, it’s ingrained in the audience to compare the two. If you follow too closely, it’s a needless cash grab; if you stray too far, what’s the connection to the original? That’s the pickle the creators behind the 2012 remake found themselves in, and today I will be looking at both versions of Total Recall: the 1990 film directed by Paul Verhoeven and the 2012 remake directed by Len Wiseman.

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Total Recall (2012) Cinema Poster


The 1990 film is an adaptation loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” taking his rough plot and ideas and mashing them into an Arnold Schwarzenegger extravaganza. The remake is based on the first film and not so much on the book. You can almost see the 2012 creators say, “We like this scene and this scene from the first film—let’s do those.” As a prime example, in the original there happens to be a three-breasted woman. In the remake, they squeeze her needlessly in. I can almost feel the filmmakers running through a check-list of images saying, “Well, we got that. Next?”

Total Recall 1990 three-breasted woman (censored)

Not necessary to the original plot, but it’s unique.

Total Recall 2012 three-breasted woman (censored)

Not necessary to the remake plot, but they had it in the original, so let’s squeeze it in.

But I digress. Let’s take a peek at the 1990 film.

Schwarzenegger plays Douglas Quaid, a construction worker who keeps having strange dreams of a woman besides his wife and the planet Mars. This being set in the future, he decides to visit the offices of Rekall, a company that specializes in implanting memories, and springs for a Rekall package that allows him to pretend to go to Mars and become a spy. But something goes wrong with the implant and he finds out he’s already a spy—and the battle for control of Mars begins.

This could almost be considered a standard Schwarzenegger action film if it weren’t for the heady concept of “Is reality real?” and the ultraviolence of Paul Verhoeven. Twenty years before Christoper Nolan made the world wonder question reality with Inception, Total Recall played heavily with this conceit. As the film progresses, we’re constantly asked by the characters in the film whether what’s happening is real or just part of a Rekall-implanted fantasy. Even at the end we don’t know for sure, and that’s fascinating. It also plays with Dick’s theme of the soul. If we’re just our memories, and my memories are telling me I’m a completely different person than what someone else is telling me, who is the real me? Do I still have the same soul? All this thought in an Ah-nuld film.

total-recall Ahnold

“It’s about to get real!”

Schwarzenegger agreed to star in the film through Carolco and had received veto power on directors. He enthusiastically brought Verhoeven on board because he loved Verhoeven’s Robocop. The director brought a certain style to the production, and you can tell this is definitely his film: there’s the use of news stories, the excessive violence, and the gratuitous sexuality (e.g., the three-breasted woman). The film originally received an X rating and had to be trimmed. Surprisingly—not really—most of the sexy stuff and some of the violence was trimmed, but it still has that Verhoeven imprint.

There are some great character actor performances in this film. Ronny Cox as the vile governor of Mars, Vilos Cohaagen; Michael Ironside as his number one agent, Richter; and Roy Brocksmith as Dr. Edgemar, the creator of Rekall, all chew through their scenes admirably. This was also Sharon Stone’s breakthrough role; she’s almost unrecognizable. She and Rachel Ticotin play the competing love interests and both do well.

There’s also some amazing makeup and model work contributing to the special effects. You can tell it was one of the most expensive films in history at the time—the money is up there on the screen. Some of the scenes were obviously filmed on a sound stage, but the world feels surprisingly lived in (if a little hokey at times). It’s refreshing to see masters of practical makeup and prosthetic effects do their jobs and not have a film rely on CGI. It makes a fantastic world feel more realistic to me. This being Mars, of course, there are mutants, and they are amazingly effective at being disconcerting.


“Do I make you uncomfortable?”

The plot of the 2012 remake is where you’ll find the majority of the differences. Mars is gone, and instead the film focuses on two halves of Earth, playing up the rich/poor conflict. Quaid (Colin Farell) is now a factory worker living on the poor side of the planet and commuting to the other side for his job via a very large gravity elevator (the Fall) that travels through the center of the Earth. Instead of being the governor of Mars, this time Cohaagen is the chancellor of the UFB (the Rich) and wants to control the Colony (the Poor) so that the rich have more territory. It’s a vicious land grab that all comes down to a climactic action set piece on the Fall. Quaid’s fighting love interests this time are Kate Beckinsdale and Jessica Biel—for whom, like Farrell, this is her second Dick adaptation (see Next and Minority Report)—while Bryan Cranston takes on the antagonist role.


“I feel like this has happened before.”

I have yet to see a film where I’ve wanted to follow and root for Colin Farrell the entire time. He keeps getting these leading-man roles, and I’m just not feeling the connection. He has a certain detachment to his charm that doesn’t draw me in as a lead. On the other hand, this is probably the most alive I’ve seen Jessica Biel in a long time. She looks like she wants to be there and kick butt a little bit. I will also add that there is a fun chase sequence with Quaid escaping his apartment that relies on some parkour-like gymnastics, and an interesting idea for how elevators might work in the future. But it is a fairly paint-by-numbers Hollywood sci-fi film. There’s not a lot of originality to it.

total recall elevator

Not only do these elevators go up and down, they go side to side. Take that, Willy Wonka.

If you like Len Wiseman’s Underworld series then you know what you’re getting with his version of Total Recall: lots of gorgeous shots of Kate Beckinsdale kicking butt, and gray overtones over a bluish, bleached-out background. Surprisingly, this film has a little more color than his other films, but the gray is still there.


Standard Len Wiseman: blue, bleached-out background with gray overtones in Underworld: Awakenings.

Taken on its own, the 2012 version is not a bad film. But it’s such a highly frenetic rehash of the 1990 version it bears little connection to the original short story. Losing all focus on memories and the soul and instead enhancing the rich/poor divide doesn’t add anything new or interesting to what makes sci fi, and Philip K. Dick, so great. If the filmmakers had decided to do a different adaptation of the book it might be a little more fresh, but it really comes across as an unneeded remake. If you haven’t seen either film and are curious I would recommend watching the 2012 version first, and then working back to the superior 1990 version.

Feel free to discuss the film further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

Check out the previous installments of Dystopian Dick:

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